GLC fuck-ups at Empire Pool
It was late afternoon on the day of Pink Floyd’s opening Wembley concert and Roger Waters seemed finally to have come off his trolley. The whole day had been plagued with technical problems, and now the Greater London Council representatives were asking to have all the house lights up in the middle of a lighting rehearsal to make sure that the flying inflatable pig was secured by a safety line as they had ordered.
“Revolve pig!” (his voice taking on an increasingly manic tone). “Open rear vent. hphthphthphthphthphthph…!” And he blew a huge raspberry. Imperturbably, the GLC people consulted their clipboards and pretended not to notice.
“Bloody wankers!” Waters muttered explosively to himself and strode away. All Pink Floyd concerts are miracles of logistics, possibly more than any other bands’. Their musical perfectionism means they’ve already got that side of the show right before they even envisage going on the road, so each of the band devotes all his energies towards making sure that the whole production goes off as immaculately as a show. At the best of times, there is a certain amount of tension, but halfway through last Tuesday afternoon it was positively explosive. “After all,” explained manager Steve O’Rourke later in the week, with three concerts down an two more to go, “other concerts are just concerts, but this is their home ground. When they play London, it’s got to be right. No half-measures are acceptable.”
Planning began last June, when it became clear that neither Olympia nor Earls Court, the favoured venues, were going to be available. A band that can sell 40,000 seats and still have people queueing outside all night in the rain – until turned away by the ever-efficient Wembley security staff – obviously has a limited number of places it can play. It had to be this time of the year, to come before the upcoming tour of the States, so outdoor venues were out. Rainbows and similar-sized theatres were too small, so it had to be Wembley’s Empire Pool, which the band had vowed they would never play again after the last
time. But while they couldn’t do anything about the hall’s noticeable lack of ambience, they could plan well ahead to help things run smoothly.
By November the meetings were well advanced. Requirements for power were laid down, the GLC were consulted. A new electrical system was being installed, but this ought to be an advantage, even though by last month the exact details still weren’t available.
Pink Floyd do use an awful lot of power. Their PA gives out roughly 30,000 watts, and for it to operate smoothly there have to be lots of safety margins so that nothing is being overloaded. There are at least four major consumers of power, in addition to the PA.
“We told them we wanted 200 amps,” said Mick Kluczynski, who, in spite of his name, has the soft Inverness accent of the place where they’re reputed to speak the best English in the British Isles, “but they didn’t believe us. You’d think they would realise we know what we are talking about by now, but they always think they know better. I made a random check the other night and we were drawing over 100 amps then.
“When we got here, we found that instead of having a separate circuit for lights and sound, it all came in by the same cable, so we were getting the most terrible buzzes, especially when Dave Gilmour played. We brought in a 400 kVa generator so that we had separate supplies, but that didn’t get rid of the noise on the first night. So that meant the power source wasn’t the real explanation. After the show on Tuesday night we went over the entire circuitry to find out what was going wrong. There were approximately 20,000 soldered joints in our entire system, so you can imagine that wasn’t easy. One plug on one lamp on our projection screen can foil you if it’s not wired exactly right.
“Do you know what we found? We had people working all night after the first show on Tuesday and eventually we discovered that, without telling us, the GLC people had gone over it on Monday night, putting these little earth wires on to everything. They said afterwards that they’d done it for safety reasons, and when we pointed out that they had ruined an entire concert, they said they couldn’t care less. All they cared about was safety.”
For the technically minded, what the GLC had done was to create a whole series of earth loops, which is the most common source of hum in any domestic hi-fi. A system without an earth wire will probably have a slight hum. But a system with two earths will often hum worse than one without any.
“I’m the one who was most affected,” said Dave Gilmour, “because I’m the one with all the foot switches and special effects. They steam in at the last moment, when you are hoping to get the show on for 8,000 people who have paid their money, and then they do things like that without even telling you. After all the trouble and expense we go to, and then they fuck you up.
“In a band like this, everyone’s got to be doing it, working at full efficiency onstage, technically and emotionally. I can get over things like that, but Roger can’t. He gets very hung up about it.”
Steve O’Rourke was quietly furious about the way it had all gone, though proud of the way his crew had ridden with the punches and got the show on the road.
“The position with Pink Floyd seems to be that everyone knows that we bring in a lot of equipment, so they try to use us as a test case and say no to everything we want to do, in case anyone else might want to do the same,” he said. “We started loading in our equipment on Friday, five days before the first concert. We’d already had long planning meetings so that they knew what we were intending to do. But because the GLC staff wouldn’t work over the weekend, they refused to go through our equipment while we were setting up.
“Then on Monday they hit us with a list of things as long as your arm. They wouldn’t allow us to use our cherrypicker lighting rigs unless they were rewired, the stage was too big, we couldn’t hang the projection screen, we couldn’t fly anything, they wouldn’t allow fireworks.”
Gradually, patiently, by a process of negotiation, persuasion and – let’s be honest – dogged determination, O’Rourke and promoter Harvey Goldsmith found ways of satisfying the GLC objections while keeping the basic concept of the show. Every single lamp had to be secured by a safety chain, for instance. But plans to hang acoustic drapes round the walls of the hall to kill the echo and improve the acoustics were vetoed absolutely.
I sat behind Roger Waters as he supervised a lighting rehearsal on the Tuesday. Roadies stood in the positions where the band would be for the show. Engineer Brian Humphries ran a tape of the Dortmund Floyd concert – the second in the European series – and the lights flashed and coruscated.
I jumped out of my skin at show opener “Sheep”, because as the lights flashed up in sync with the sound of the drums, I really thought for a moment it was Nick Mason drumming, despite the fact that my own eyes told me Nick was sitting in the row in front of me, alongside Roger Waters. He’d been using the band’s limo to do some personal shopping in the West End earlier that day, and seemed the most relaxed member of the band at that point.
“Is that it?” Waters exploded to Steve O’Rourke at the end. “Is that what it’s going to look like tonight? Because if it is, we’re not going on.”
“They THINK that’s what it’s going to look like,” replied the manager reassuringly. “We’re working on it.”
Later, O’Rourke explained the problem to me: “The last time we were here we had the whole house blacked out apart from the exit signs. Now the GLC have a new ruling, which says that there’s got to be a level of lighting equivalent to a bright moonlit night. That’s what they told me. But, apparently, the actual regulation merely says there must be a certain percentage of lighting, if possible, and providing it’s not detrimental to the performance.
“Of course, there’s got to be safety regulations, but all our stuff is designed with safety margins. Take the pig. It weighs 80 pounds, and it’s carried by a three-quarter-inch steel line with a breaking strain of several tons. There is no regulation to say there’s got to be a safety-line, but we had to work all night putting one on in such a way that it wouldn’t foul anything as it moved over the auditorium. I asked for a copy of the regulations on Monday, and they said I’d have to write in.
“This sort of thing doesn’t happen to us anywhere else in the world. On 20 shows in Europe we haven’t had any of these problems. Normally we set up, at a maximum the day before, but often on the day of the show. Here we had Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the show on Tuesday, and we still had a fucked-up show. It was really dreadful, and a large percentage of the blame is down to the GLC. Fortunately last night (Wednesday) was close to being a very, very good show.”
With all these problems, who needed an attack of flu, pharyngitis and tonsillitis to make life difficult? But this is what Dave Gilmour was coping with as the show drew nearer. He spent much of Tuesday afternoon having liquid cocaine pumped up his nostrils — quite legally – in Harley Street as part of a course to get his vocal tubes functioning more or less normally.
Though his voice had a sexy, Lauren Bacall hoarseness afterwards, the treatment had its desired effect, during the gig at least.
In fact, despite the problems, I thought the Tuesday night show wasn’t too bad, though by Thursday the bugs had obviously been worked out of the system. Nor did the hang-ups interfere with the playing onstage – after all, the main object of the exercise.
Rick Wright’s keyboards, which had seemed rather low-key in Frankfurt, were particularly outstanding, and Gilmour’s guitar lines were as blistering as ever, likewise Mason’s drumming. Strangely, though it was Gilmour’s throat that was under medical attention, the only real signs of strain were in Roger Waters’ singing. This may have been because he knew the systems were operating generally at rather less than full efficiency, and he seemed to be working harder than ever to project what the songs were all about, which sometimes succeeded remarkably, but also added at times a manic note that worked against, rather than with, the subject-matter of the songs, particularly in the Animals sequence, which occupied the entire first half.
“Roger is the one who dreams up most of the effects,” said Robbie Williams. “He applies an eye for detail that would be unthinkable in any less complex, less structured show.
“I want the smoke to begin at the words ‘all tight lips and cold feet’ at the beginning of the second verse of Pigs,” I heard him instructing some of the crew. “And I want as much smoke as you can give me. I don’t want the audience to see the pig until the loud solo from Dave that comes after the verse.”
And sure enough, during the Tuesday run through the pig emerges in smoke.
“There’s no way we’re going to allow that much smoke in the auditorium,” pronounces a GLC official. It is certainly rather murky.
“We’ll open the doors at the back on the night and the fans’ll soon disperse it,” says Steve O’Rourke, but Waters isn’t listening.
“I prefer the pig to the aeroplane they had last time we were at Wembley,” said sound engineer Brian Humphries. “Every time it came zooming over I used to duck. It was my first gig with the band – and it was the first time a lot of the music on this new album was played, as a matter of fact – and I was convinced it was going to crash right on the mixer. Finally, the GLC gave us fewer problems over that than this pig.”
Humphries presides over a fantastic battery of electronic equipment, some of it hired specially, some of it cannibalised from the Floyd’s studios in Britannia Row, Islington, within a 30-square metre enclave in the centre of the hall which also houses the lighting desks controlled by Graeme Fleming. To lend him an extra pair of hands, Nigel Walker had been seconded from Air Studios in London to help control the set-up.
Another source of sound is the film projector showing Ralph Steadman cartoons, which is operated by Andy Shields’ team from a 17ft tower behind the stage, projecting onto a 32ft back projection screen suspended at the back of the stage.
One of the reasons Roger Waters wears headphones for so much of the set is that the film carries a “click track” which he hears to keep the band in sync with the film. The band relies on him to give them the timing, and it is so tight that until Andy told me, I didn’t realise that most of the sound wasn’t on film.
In addition to Graeme Fleming’s lighting team, three or four other people are likely to be gainfully employed in the mixing area, such as Nigel Taylor, the maintenance engineer and general boffin from Britannia Row, and Derek Unwin, who looks after cassettes – every Floyd concert is recorded on a Nakamichi – and acts as a communications channel between the various parts of the hall, such as Seth Goldman who is mixing the monitor sound onstage, and the control area.
The rehearsal proceeds, and during the Dogs sequence, three blown-up shapes rise from stage left, a petty bourgeois family, mum, dad and fat little boy.
“This is nothing compared to what we are planning for the US tour,” said Fisher. “We’ll have nine extra blow-ups. One of our ideas is a blow-up fridge with a door that opens and spills out sausages. Another is a VW Beetle.”
On the night of the third concert, everyone goes to his controls like matelots going to action stations on a nuclear Dreadnought. Dave Gilmour passes me on his way to the stage to await his opening cue.
“Break a leg,” I greet him, aware of the time-honoured stage superstition that it’s unlucky to wish people luck as they go on. He grunts, as if warding off the evil eye. After all, it might just happen. Everything else has.
*Asked to comment upon Pink Floyd’s allegations, the GLC denied that their officials had touched any of the band’s equipment. “Our officers were presented with a large number of new effects for the show on Monday morning,” said a spokesman, “which was the first time they had a chance to examine them so far as safety considerations were concerned. The secondary lighting level was dimmed in time for the Wednesday show because our officers did agree that it was too high and detracted from the programme.”